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First day of racing, first win for newly motivated Matthews

CONFLANS-SAINTE-HONORINE, France (VN) — No one saw that one coming. Not even Michael Matthews, who made his first 6.1km of racing in 2016 really count Sunday at Paris-Nice.

The 25-year-old Australian hadn’t raced since the Abu Dhabi Tour in October, but he squeezed out a win over the favorites in the opening prologue at Paris-Nice, nipping Tom Dumoulin (Giant – Alpecin) by one second. Cannondale’s Patrick Bevin stopped the clock for third, at two seconds slower. Last year’s overall winner Richie Porte (BMC) was 11th, 10 seconds back, while Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) came in 27th, 16 seconds down.

“It was a massive surprise,” Matthews said after beating time trial star Dumoulin. “I was hoping for a top-5, and then have a chance to take the jersey the next few days. To beat him gives me a big boost of confidence, and shows the work I’ve been doing is worth it.”

This should be huge season for the 2010 U23 world champion. So close to big wins in 2015, a new-look Matthews buckled down over the winter to put in some hard yards, and it showed in his first day of racing in 2016.

Rather than to go home to sunny Australia over the winter (summer Down Under), Matthews stayed in Europe at his base in Monaco to train in the cold, wind, and wet conditions, the same challenges he’ll face during the spring classics. He delayed his season debut until early March, and his impressive start bodes well for the 2016 season, especially with Milano-Sanremo less than three weeks away.

“As a pro, you need to train in the same conditions that you race in,” Matthews said. “It’s nice to go to a race to try to win straight away. If I went home to Australia, it would be hard to come back to race in the cold. I’ve been training four months for this prologue.”

Last year was almost the season of Matthews’ arrival to the big time. He was so close to so many big wins. Just consider this: third at Milano-Sanremo and Amstel Gold Race, and second at the world championships in Richmond, as well as second at Brabantse Pijl and the GP Québec. Rather than frustrate him, those close-calls served to motivate him even more over the winter to expand his training into time trialing and climbing.

“I did use that as motivation for this season,” Matthews said of his close calls. “The way the training’s been going, and how I am feeling on the bike, I am very excited about the spring classics. Now I know I can be with the top guys in the world.”

Last season wasn’t a complete bust. He won stages at Paris-Nice and the Vuelta al País Vasco (Tour of the Basque Country), as well as stages at Tour de Suisse and the Tour of Alberta. He also won a stage at the Giro d’Italia, and wore the pink jersey for the opening three stages before passing it off to then-teammate Simon Clarke (now with Cannondale).

The success and near misses only bolstered his confidence and drive. In fact, Matthews is aiming for the GC in what’s a very mountainous edition of Paris-Nice. That’s definitely new ground for Matthews, who has never punched into a top-10 in a European stage race since turning pro in 2011.

“When I saw the Paris-Nice course, I knew it would favor me more than other years,” he said. “I know the climbs around Monaco, and this is going to be a difficult race for everyone. But I knew this is one of the few years I could go for the GC in Paris-Nice.”

A jack-of-all trades, Matthews is the type of rider who can win in all terrain. He’s not a pure sprinter, like a Marcel Kittel (Etixx—Quick–Step) or André Greipel (Lotto—Soudal), but he’s not a climber with a punch, like Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) or Alejandro Valverde (Movistar). Instead, he’s more like Peter Sagan (Tinkoff), the rider who powered away from him and the rest of the pack at last year’s worlds.

“Coming into this race, I didn’t know where my form was. I did a lot of work on the TT, so this win today gives me a big boost of confidence,” he said. “When I’m time trialing well, that means I’m climbing well. It’s a complete package, and my sprinting form is very good.”

Monday’s stage will present an added wrinkle: two sectors of dirt roads on two laps on a closing circuit. Each lap features 2km of the messy roads, plus a third-category climb 3.5km from the finale thrown in for good measure. It should be just the type of terrain Matthews has been working for all winter.